John Maxwell O’Brien – An excerpt from Aloysius the Great

Profile John Maxwell O Brien LE P&W June 2019

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An excerpt from Aloysius the Great by John Maxwell O’Brien

John Maxwell O’Brien is an emeritus professor of history (Queens College, CUNY)) who has written numerous articles on ancient history, medieval history, and the history of alcoholism. His best-selling biography, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy (Routledge), has been translated into Greek and Italian and he authored the article on alcoholism in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Professor O’Brien’s second life has been devoted to his first love, creative writing. Professor O’Brien’s poems have appeared or will appear shortly in Literary Yard, Hedgehog Poetry Press (where his poem was shortlisted in the Cupid’s Arrow contest), IthacaLit, The Southwest Poetry Review, and the Irish Poetry Corner of Irish Arts & Entertainment. A short story of his is in the current issue of Kaleidoscope and he has just finished a debut novel entitled Aloysius the Great, an extract from which appears below. Professor O’Brien is now looking for a suitable publishing home for his novel.


Aloysius the Great is a seriocomic tale of an alcoholic professor who becomes resident director of an American study abroad program in England during the 1960s and finds himself on a runaway roller coaster of rebellious students, drugs, sex, liquor, and academic politics. This picaresque novel is a treasure trove for admirers of James Joyce. Its chapters parallel episodes in Joyce’s Ulysses. Many of its characters come from Ulysses and/or individuals significant in Joyce’s life. Words and phrases from Ulysses are sprinkled harmoniously throughout the text and Joyce aficionados are invited to detect vestiges of the master in the excerpt that follows:

Chapter 1

That posturing hippopotamus couldn’t possibly know about Marthe, could he? No. Not Dean Irwin. He’s oblivious to anything beyond his own résumé.

Marthe wouldn’t breathe a word of it. Or shouldn’t. She’s the one who did the seducing. Okay—lacing my coffee with gin while still at the college was an error of judgment, but who expects students to be knocking at your office door at ten o’clock at night?

Stop playing the victim, Aloysius. It’s unbecoming. If you hadn’t been drinking, you would have persuaded her to back off, or at least made a break for it. If she has pointed a finger at you, no one will believe your version of the story. Screwed—that’s what you are.

I glance back down at the letter on top of the pile.

Aloysius Tabeel Gogarty
Assistant Professor
Department of History

I start to unpeel the envelope but stop and turn it back around. No, it’s not my absurd name that’s troubling me. It’s the return address in the upper left-hand corner: Office of the Dean of Faculty. Footsteps approach from the hallway. Beware of prying eyes in the faculty mailroom. Retreat to the sanctuary of your office.

September 11, 1967

Dear Professor Gogarty,

A situation has presented itself that demands immediate attention. It is of utmost importance that we meet concerning this matter. Contact Mrs. Delagracia at my office (ext. 1922) to arrange a meeting with me and do so promptly upon receipt of this letter.

Francis Irwin
Dean of Faculty
Municipal College of the City of New York

There’s no please, not even a sincerely yours. Maybe civilities are superfluous when it comes to notices of execution. One vulnerable moment and—poof—everything you’ve worked for goes up in smoke.

Go ahead. Do it. Pick up the phone. Climb onto the funeral pyre.

“Hello, it’s Aloysius Gogarty from the History Department. I understand the dean has been looking for me . . . that is . . . uh . . . wishes to see me. Yes, I’m over here in Hammersmith Tower and can stop by now if that’s all right. Good. See you soon.”

I walk across campus at a brisk pace but stop dead in my tracks in front of the dean’s office, immobilized, gaping at the doorknob.

Take a deep breath. Open the door. Don’t slam it behind you.

Elena Delagracia looks up from behind her nameplate and catches me unaware. I take a step back to process what I see. Her red hair moves upward in an irregular curl at the apex of her forehead, just as Alexander the Great’s did. Her eyes are avocado green, but when the light catches her right eye, it turns chestnut brown. Alexander’s eyes were said to be like that.

“Might you be Professor Gogarty?” she asks in a high-pitched voice, breaking the spell.

Off on the wrong foot again. Color me hapless when it comes to women.

“I beg your pardon, you remind me of someone. Yes, I might be . . . I mean, I am,” I shake my head theatrically, “Aloysius Gogarty.”

Her winsome smile puts me at ease for the moment. Elena Delagracia isn’t what you expect to see in a Latin American; her hair and ivory skin hint at a Celtic or Germanic influence. She seems amused. Make the most of it.

“May I ask—are you from Spain?”

“Actually, Professor Gogarty, I was born in Cuba, but my parents come from Andalusia which, as you know, is in Spain.”

The German tribe of Vandals left their name in Andalusia; maybe they’re the guilty party. But the Greeks and the Jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe traipsed over that region. So, it’s anyone’s guess.

Didn’t the dean’s letter say Mrs. Delagracia? There’s no ring on her finger?

“Simply for reasons of protocol, should I address you as Miss Delagracia or Mrs. Delagracia?”

“Either way,” she says, with oracular ambiguity. “You can take a seat if you’d like. Dean Irwin will be with you in just a few minutes.”

“Thank you.”

I find myself stealing another glance at her. They say my mother’s eyes were a different color too. She gave me life, but I killed her in the process. Now it looks like I’ve killed my career. I must have the Midas touch in reverse. Everything I lay my hands on seems to turn to—

Dean Irwin emerges from a corridor behind Elena’s desk and signals for me to follow him. There’s no handshake, a sure sign my fate is sealed.

Irwin can’t be more than five feet five but must weigh close to two hundred and fifty pounds. I can’t resist mimicking his waddle as I follow in his footsteps, but this risky routine comes to an abrupt halt when my shoes sink into a thick crimson carpet.

His office is a large horseshoe-shaped room with intricately carved mahogany bookcases lining its walls. The bookshelves are filled with leather-bound classics arranged chronologically, except for one area, French literature. There, foot-high marble busts of Montaigne and Racine face out into the room, drawing a visitor’s attention to the three volumes they frame—Irwin’s celebrated tome on the use of the accent circumflex in France during the seventeenth century. In the next life he’ll probably focus on the accent aigu.

An antique chandelier hangs over a mahogany chair directly in front of Irwin’s larger-than-life desk. He points to the chair and we sit. Irwin’s head is silhouetted by the sunlight streaming through a semicircular window behind him, making his round face barely visible against a postcard profile of the Manhattan skyline. A pungent wave of his cologne wafts in my direction, but I restrain myself from retching.

I wonder how he sees me. I’m twenty-seven, five feet nine and a half inches tall, overweight, and undistinguished, except for my auburn hair and small, round black sunglasses. Come to think of it, almost all of my clothes are either black or gray. I’m always seen in my undersized black beret, tilted slightly to the right. It’s my Latin Quarter hat, my Hamlet hat.

“Is there a clinical explanation for those opaque glasses of yours? You always seem to be wearing them,” Irwin says while reaching for a pencil.

He’s been collecting evidence.



“Yes, benign essential blepharospasm. I contracted it as a child during the war, and it left me photophobic.”

“You wear them at night as well?”

“They mitigate the impact of artificial light on the pupils of my eyes.”

“Really?” he asks, rolling the pencil back and forth across his desk with the palm of his hand. “Oh yes, of course . . . BEB.”

He hasn’t the slightest notion of what I’m talking about.

“Professor Gogarty,” he lifts the pencil and stares at it, “what were your plans for this year?”

I feel the blood coursing through my neck.

Here’s where the hammer descends on me.

“Well, I had planned to continue teaching here.”

Irwin starts tapping the pencil on his desk. After a glacial pause, he speaks. “Well, if it were up to me, you would not be teaching here this year.” He squints and sits there squeezing the pencil until its tip breaks from the pressure he’s applying.

I flinch, and beads of sweat gather on my forehead. I reach for my handkerchief, fold it in half, and make a wide sweep of my brow. What should I do? Confess and throw myself on the mercy of the court?

“Oh?” is all that escapes from my mouth.

Irwin shifts the phlegm around in his throat and looks at me from behind the pointless pencil he’s holding upright in front of his nose. “How would you like to lecture at a foreign university this year?”

“What the…? Excuse me?”

“Yes.” He smiles.

He smiled.

“As you may know, we’re in the process of transforming our study-abroad program into the largest—or I should say— the best example of international education in the world. We now have six centers in Europe and three in Latin America. This year we’re moving into England and Japan, and there’s an opening for you at one of our international centers.”

Sweet Jesus recalled to life. What did he say? Japan?

“I don’t speak Japanese.”

“No, no, no. The UK. England. How would you like to be resident director of the New York Municipal College’s Study-Abroad Program in Great Britain?”

I’ve already learned that the longer an academic title, the less important the position, but it’s a far cry from leaving in disgrace, so I raise my eyebrows to show I’m impressed.

“You’ll be teaching several courses at a host university and serving as a shepherd of sorts for our students. You’d be what the English call their moral tutor.”

“Their moral tutor?”

“Why not? There’s nothing that would disqualify you from such a post. Is there?”

“I should hope not,” I say, as convincingly as I can.

He nods in satisfaction. “You may be wondering why all this has arisen at the eleventh hour. The fact of the matter is that, poised as we are to set the UK program in motion, we’ve experienced an unanticipated setback. A Berkeley professor agreed to lead the group, but he’s taken ill—atrial fibrillation, and the poor man is only in his early fifties. His personal physician has advised him to remain in California. We need a younger man, someone who is physically fit and popular with his students.

“I’ve been led to believe you may fit the bill. Now I’m well aware that you are coming up for tenure this year, but there’s no reason that can’t be accomplished in absentia. If you provide exemplary leadership abroad it would be of inestimable value to the college and, of course, taken into consideration when you’re evaluated for tenure. Does the position seem attractive to you?”

If I’m denied tenure I’ll lose my job anyway, so it’s out of the frying pan, into the inferno. Is there a choice here? I might as well probe.

“What about my classes?”

“We’re already in the process of making arrangements for adjuncts to cover all of your sections. From what I’ve heard it’ll be difficult for anyone to match your performance in the classroom, but we’ll do the best we can. Don’t worry about us though; we’ll manage. No one is irreplaceable.”

Isn’t that comforting? By all means, go right ahead and usurp my life. Uproot and transplant me as it suits you.

“What about my research? I’ve almost finished the final draft of my book and planned on polishing it during the next few months.”

“They polish books in England, don’t they? In fact, the English are forever polishing their books. Your manuscript—it’s about Charlemagne, isn’t it?—should improve by leaps and bounds in such a civilized environment. Besides, the tenure materials are not due at the departmental level until April. There’s no reason whatsoever you cannot accomplish all of your objectives abroad. I finished my magnum opus in Paris, despite all the seductive distractions there.”

Irwin smiles suggestively but declines to elaborate on which seductive distractions in Paris could possibly have come between him and the circumflex.

“And that work, by the way, earned me recognition as a Chevalier of the Ordre des Palmes Académiques.” His pudgy finger points to a medallion attached to a purple ribbon encased on the wall in a gilded baroque frame.

I purse my lips and nod, as if I’ve been made privy to an earth-shattering revelation. The truth of the matter is Irwin reminds the entire faculty of this distinction with numbing regularity and is said to wake people up on park benches to let them know as well. The consensus is that it was his wife’s access to the corridors of power in French society, rather than his immortal broodings over the circumflex that earned him his Chevalier medallion. Her family traces its lineage all the way back to Charlemagne.

Wait a minute. He thinks I’m writing a book about Charlemagne and is probably concerned I’ll say something unsavory about his wife’s ancestor.

“It’s Alexander, by the way. Not Charlemagne. I’m writing a biography of Alexander the Great.”

Alexandre le Grand, eh? Well, I’m glad to hear that. I thought it was Charlemagne. So, Alexander’s the one you’re making a drunk out of?”

“I prefer to think he did that to himself. I’m simply disclosing what I’ve discovered in the sources,” I say piously. “I’m sorry if you find that disconcerting.”

“Not in the least. In fact, I find it quite promising now that I know its Alexander. Properly executed, it could draw favorable attention to the college. Still, it’s a trifle old fashioned with the drinking, no? What about drugs? Didn’t he use them? That might make your book more engaging and be more in keeping with our times.”

“Thanks for the suggestion, but no he didn’t use drugs, just wine.”

“No beer, either?”

“The ancient Greeks thought of beer as a swinish potation, better left to the barbarian.”

He smiles again. “How French. This isn’t going to be a temperance tract inveighing against the fruit of the vine, is it? I occasionally indulge in the grape myself, and you, I’ve been told, are no teetotaler, correct?”

“God forbid,” I blurt out. Then, realizing Irwin’s just made a jarring reference to my drinking, quickly add, “I tend to follow Aristotle in seeking balance in all things.” Jesus. I sound just as pretentious as el hipopótamo. Better change the subject.

“Won’t these students require a great deal of attention in England?”

“Minimal. They’re young adults, not children. Furthermore, the Berkeley man scrutinized all applications and interviewed each and every candidate. I, of course, had the final say as to whether an applicant was acceptable. Few difficulties should arise.

“Naturally, during the first couple of weeks you’ll have to make yourself available to them, but after that they’ll be largely on their own. Only our best and brightest students, thirteen in all, have been approved for the program. These young people are looking to absorb a foreign culture, not make a surrogate father of you.”

He has an answer for everything.

“They’ll be leaving by boat on the weekend. The English term begins at the end of this month, and our students will spend a few days in London to get acclimated. You will leave early next week by air, in order to establish yourself and coordinate their orientation. First, you’ll go to Yorkshire University to introduce yourself, then to London to greet our students. After a week or so there, you’ll arrange for three of them—all girls I believe—to be transported to Berkshire University. You’ll accompany a mixed group of ten students to Yorkshire University. That’s where you’ll teach. You’ll have a liaison at Yorkshire, but that’s not the case at Berkshire. Here’s the name of the Yorkshire man and how he can be reached.” He leans across the desk as far as his bulbous stomach will permit and hands me a sheet of paper.

It says: “Yorkshire University: Richard Tarleton Mountjoy” above a phone number and a university address. Talk about names. He’s probably one of those portentous prigs the English lionize.

“It will be of utmost importance for you to make a good impression on this man and form an amicable working relationship with him.”

That will be a challenge. We’ll have next to nothing in common. Irwin still hasn’t answered the most important question:

“You don’t think then that this commitment could adversely affect my chances of getting tenure?”

“In my opinion—and I do not, of course, speak for members of the Promotion and Tenure Committee—if your book gets published by a scholarly press, and if you enjoy a successful year abroad, it would be very difficult to deny your tenure.”

So, there’s no hammer, but a Damoclean sword will dangle over my head until the mission is accomplished to his satisfaction. I raise a skeptical eyebrow. “How many students applied for the program?”

He hesitates. “Thirteen. But you can rest assured all of them are well qualified. So then, what do you say to all this? Can we count on you?”

Thirteen apply, thirteen are accepted. There’s selectivity for you. Well, I’ve exhausted every evasive tactic I can imagine. No little woman at home who has to be consulted before any important decision can be made. No elderly father or mother who needs to be tended to. I won’t have to worry about Marthe—she’ll be three thousand miles away.

Don’t hesitate.

“What an extraordinary opportunity. I’m most grateful for it and delighted to be able to accept!”

“I hoped you’d feel that way. Here are your students.” Irwin nudges a piece of paper in my direction.

They’re in alphabetical order. Only one name is familiar to me.

Fleischmann, Marthe.

© John Maxwell O’Brien